Unified heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua is set to make his American debut against Andy Ruiz Jr. on June 1 at Madison Square Garden in New York. Joshua, 29, from England, currently holds the IBF, WBA and WBO heavyweight titles, and has held at least one piece of the heavyweight championship puzzle since knocking out Charles Martin for the IBF title in April 2016.
Joshua was originally scheduled to face undefeated American contender Jarell Miller on that date, but the Brooklyn-born slugger failed three prefight drug tests administered by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association, so the New York State Athletic Commission denied him a license to fight.
That was the right move from a competitiveness standpoint, but the timing was such that Joshua’s promoter, Matchroom Boxing’s Eddie Hearn, was left scrambling to find a promotable replacement opponent.
While most promotions are built around the main event clash between two specific fighters, a select handful are more like this one: less about who is fighting who and more about where the fighting is taking place.
Joshua (22-0, 21 KOs) has defeated a host of upper echelon heavyweights over his last six fights to become a tremendously popular sporting figure in the United Kingdom.
But he’s not yet the global boxing icon his handlers want him to be, so the idea behind him fighting in New York is to move him away niche sports star status toward the realm of becoming a mainstream American sports celebrity.
To say it another way, his promoters think he’s more Lennox Lewis than Frank Bruno.
In order to accomplish the task, though, Joshua’s team knows he needs to make a big splash in the US, meaning he needs a good opponent who is something more than just a sacrificial lamb.
After other high profile heavyweights, such as former title challenger Luis Ortiz, reportedly turned down the chance to fight Joshua, Hearn ultimately settled on the 29-year-old American, Ruiz.
Ruiz’s only loss came in his lone world title challenge against then WBO champion Joseph Parker in December 2016. A fast-handed, skilled and powerful puncher with a solid repertoire of offensive moves, Ruiz gave Parker just about all the New Zealander could handle in what ultimately turned out to be a majority decision win for Parker.
But the fight was close and competitive. It probably could have been scored either way.
Ruiz (32-1, 21 KOs) has rebounded nicely in winning three straight since over mostly notable competition. In fact, one could argue he’s fighting at his very best as a professional right now. But the knock on Ruiz is less about how good a fighter he is and more about how completely dedicated (or not) he is to being a professional prizefighter.
Ruiz is a noticeably rotund boxer, one who has carried as much as 297 pounds into a fight on his 6-foot-2-inch frame, and one who has never really had the look of a fully committed professional athlete.
To his credit, Ruiz seems to have accepted it as just part of his identity. He’s even shown up to television interviews with a candy bar in tow, turning what some might call a lightning rod for criticism about his character into something just interesting and fun about him as a human being.
Whatever the case, Ruiz is a legitimately good heavyweight contender still competing in the prime of his career. For a short-notice substitute, he’s an excellent opponent for Joshua because he possesses solid enough boxing skills to give any world level fighter real trouble and could conceivably pull the upset if everything happened to go his way.
Ruiz’s main problem when facing Joshua, in fact, will be nothing he lacks as a fighter at all. Instead, it will be that Joshua’s tremendous assets--him being a 6-foot-6-inch Hercules with an 82-inch reach and a whole host of other skills and attributes--that are probably just too much for any other heavyweight to overcome.